Eastertide concludes in May with the celebration of Pentecost, making Easter a season focused on the emergence of the church. This is why the lectionary texts include readings from Acts instead of the traditional Hebrew Testament.
In Sacred Journeys, Jan Richardson describes the Easter season as a time for reflecting on community. "Each community has a different rhythm," she writes. "We know that the rhythms of community can be both life-giving and stifling, liberating and oppressive." What images and metaphors does the Bible offer us that can convey this truism about life in church communities?
The earthen vessel is one. Some theologians describe the church as a treasure given to us by God and placed in earthen vessels—human beings with foibles, prone to bad judgment. Even so, earthen vessels hold the water Jesus turns to wine and, in his parable, the oil the young women conserve for their lamps. These vessels represent our fragility and our capacity; we can fall apart, but we can also hold miracles.
Christian community is like a lamp fashioned from Earth's clay and lit by the Spirit's tongue of flame. Kept trimmed and burning, it is a light that gives illumination to all who draw near its flame. Sometimes the flame burns us. Other times it dies. But, as the hymnist reminds us in "God Whose Purpose is to Kindle," the Spirit is always ready to ignite us with her fire.
Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.
Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35
I have mixed feelings about the mystical vision of the church as Christ's bride, as we read in this week's passage from Revelation. In many ways this vision describes a kind of perfection: Jesus is the new Adam, and his bride is the new Eve. But according to mystical interpretations of this metaphorical language, this radiant bride is none other than Jesus' mother, Mary. It was a typical medieval convention to imagine and portray Jesus with a woman emerging from the wound in his side. The imagery is about a return to Paradise where this woman is both Eve being pulled from Adam's rib and Jesus birthing Mary.
I know this all sounds strange, but some of the mystical and spiritual traditions of Christianity—such as John's vision during his exile on Patmos—begin with ordinary things and through prayer, meditation, and fasting become extraordinary, mind-bending revelations. A man giving birth? To his own mother? Julian of Norwich, the famous English mystic who lived from 1342 to 1416, even goes so far as to say that Mary, "our Lady is our mother, in whom we are all enclosed and born of her in Christ, for she who is mother of our savior is mother of all who are saved in our savior, and our savior is our true Mother, in whom we are endlessly born ...."
The fluidity of Christian identity present in Christian mysticism can be tremendously valuable for us today. While it is clearly anachronistic to call the early church "postmodern," we can say that the New Testament's emphasis on the church being an assembly of God's new creation requires us to think beyond modernity's boundaries.
What is Purity?
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22 - 22:5; John 5:1-9
Not only do mystical visions blur the clean lines of masculine and feminine identities, they also push us to think about the healing of human beings, the nations, and all of creation.
Hildegard of Bingen conceives of salvation as a wheel of God's fiery justice. This justice filters out the bad and absorbs the good, and shows us that creation is a web of relationships requiring our time and attention.
Hildegard's vision has an interesting application for this week's reading about the paralyzed man at Sheep Gate pool (John 5:1–9). What about Jesus' exchange with this man—whom he heals—is good news? The obvious conclusion is that being healed of a physical disability is good news, but we need to consider a few other things before deciding if this is also the best conclusion.
An area of theological conversation that is gaining attention is (dis)ability theology, which addresses systematic and personal discrimination against people based on mental and/or physical (dis)ability. In the essay "Creation, Handicappism, and the Community of Differing Abilities," Dawn DeVries writes, "Clearly, much of the stigmatization suffered by persons with disabilities stems from the notion that disability is the punishment for sin." She reminds us that Jesus faced this question earlier in John 9:2 when people wanted to know whose sin had caused the man in question to be born blind.
This relates to John's unfolding vision of the lamb and his bride. In the Women's Bible Commentary, Susan Garrett points out that the anthropomorphized New Jerusalem is pure. Purity is achieved and maintained through sacrificial practices, an important biblical theme symbolized by the lamb. But rather than interpreting the absence of anything accursed in this new city, is it possible that the Spirit urges us to think about purity as something more than strict morality or an avoidance of the taint of sin?
Purity is not so much about returning to a state of "original perfection" as it is being clear about our desire for wholeness and full humanity. What is good news to the sick man is not simply that Jesus heals him. That Jesus intercedes and is attentive to this man—who otherwise has no one to advocate for him in his search for justice—is even better news.
Tending the Flames
Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 97; Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; John 17:20-26
What connects the New Testament readings this week are the references to baptism and new life in Christ through that ritual, but I am stuck on the little slave girl in the Acts reading.
Having had a spirit cast from her body because she was getting on Paul's nerves, she becomes a catalyst for the apostles' imprisonment and a miracle leading to conversion. But we don't know what happens to her. Does she seek out Paul and Silas to be baptized? Is she further abused by her masters now that she can no longer tell fortunes? And what kind of visions did she really have? What will her life be like having encountered Christ's apostles? I wish Luke had provided more details.
What Luke does do here is describe bondage at three different levels. First there is the girl in bondage to a malevolent spirit of some kind. Then we find Paul and Silas bound in jail; their imprisonment is that of the persecuted Christian. Finally, we read about the jailer choosing to bind himself to Christ through baptism. As believers we know that Jesus Christ, our "lord and master," is benevolent, but he also expects us to respond to human need and cries for justice.
Perhaps this is why I feel so dissatisfied by what we know about the fortune-telling girl. We know her masters are intent on exploiting her. We know she is able to accurately describe who Paul and Silas are and what they are doing around town. However, we do not know where, in her newfound spiritual freedom, she will find community or at least advocates who will keep her from being exploited in the future. This is an example of how scripture speaks to us through absence and silence. Interpreting the slave girl's story symbolically, I have yet another question: What is our response to those people and places where the Spirit's flame is left untended and eventually goes out?
Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 104:24-35; Romans 8:14-17; John 14:8-17, 25-27
In the post-resurrection days before his ascension, Jesus promised his disciples he would send the Spirit to be present with them as an advocate. Last month Indiana's Goshen College sent the 2007 class of graduates out into their post-college lives. I had the honor of working with a group of seniors to plan the baccalaureate service. As we talked about how they felt about their college experience and what it means to plan worship, we found our way to the Pentecost story in Acts.
We decided that instead of a traditional order of worship we wanted to try something new. Gathering together class members' voices, we used their sound along with oil lamps to retell this ancient story. The voices—the sound of flaming tongues confessing belief and articulating vision—were represented by burning ceramic oil lamps. These voices were then presented in dialogue with our college president demonstrating literally and symbolically the importance of intergenerational conversation, discernment, and just plain work that goes into building the church. It was a powerful testimony embellished by a beautiful song, "We Are ...," written by Sweet Honey in the Rock's Ysaye Barnwell, which describes the intimate connections of past, present, and future generations.
In American culture, it's so tempting to give in to worshipping at the altars of youth and entitlement that we forget the present is an inheritance to us from the past. Rites of passage such as college graduation and certainly the Holy Spirit's arrival in Acts mark moments when something new is expected of us.
Celebrating Pentecost means celebrating the maturation process and gaining insight from everyone, whether it is the innocence of children, the energy of youth, the cynicism of middle age, or the experience that comes from old age. Through the Spirit, difference expands purpose, youth is a source of hope, and age represents the wellspring of strength. From what I can tell, the apocalyptic and revelatory quality of Pentecost is simply that we need each other.